Not long after my mission, I found myself drawn back to my native alienation. It’s been a constant struggle for me to inhabit the world of people. I’ve had moments, even months, of warm clarity of vision. But then I have receded again into my natural state, bondage to some vision of my own power and priority. My wife and then my children, in company with others who have loved me, have slowly made me more open and tender—even loving. By the time I was in my thirties, I still struggled with the nagging sense that I was by nature a misanthrope. But there were people in my life whom I loved, and I could generally be kind to the rest, as long as I remembered to work at it.
Still, whatever peace I had made with adults, I remained mystified by, even terrified of, children other than my own. People laugh at me to hear this confession, and they probably should. I am laughable. But there was the reality of it: I was afraid of children. They were urgent babblers who spewed syllables and body fluids like tiny volcanos of mucus, vinegar, and baking soda. Their ways were not mine. Perhaps, although I wasn’t open to the idea at the time, they reminded me of my own childhood weakness and pain. Whatever the reason, I maintained a wary distance. Even my own children, whom I loved deeply as people, mystified me in their childness.
Then my wife fell ill when we turned forty, and her sickness turned my world upside down. Absent my cool detachment and comfortable smugness, I was brutally, ruthlessly exposed to the elements, like a mountaineer wearing swim trunks on the upper slopes of Mount Everest. I had lost my protective indifference to the world in its terrible beauty and disorienting mysteries. I finally realized, in retrospect, that my lifelong habit of misanthropy was born of fear.
Neither nature nor nurture, the alliterative pillars of determinism, were adequate when put to the test in my life. They said little of any significance about substantive human problems. I yearned for something more than just the endowments of nature and nurture, something more than the asphyxiating cocoon I’d spun around myself in protective denial of the world outside my head. I found myself needing to rest on the twin pillars of a different faith than physical determinism. I needed real choice, and I needed Christ. The “authentic,” misanthropic self that nature and nurture had bestowed on me was useless. If anything, that self clouded my vision. I chose instead to try to make myself open to the mind of Christ.
My lifelong disdain didn’t belong in this new phase of life. God had not called me to aloof indifference toward children. I could do better. I needed to see more clearly. In Matthew 19, in the midst of some hard preaching, the crowds bring their children in the hopes that Jesus will bless them with health and safety by placing his hands on their heads. The disciples, protecting their weary leader, “rebuke” the hopeful parents. Jesus, once again pointing out the blindness of his disciples, says, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). He then blesses the children. This tiny story is one of many telling the core witness of the New Testament: the disciples are blind, and the people we are prone to overlook are the most important citizens of God’s kingdom. In my early fear of children, I was the typical disciple until Jesus led me to allow the children to come, and to see that they are heaven’s own.
While I don’t think of myself as possessing spiritual gifts, I am able to elucidate subtle connections through persistent questioning. I’ve used this ability to good effect in my scientific and historical writing. I hadn’t, though, asked too many questions about my trademark cynicism. I started to really wonder how the world might look to God, especially the human part of it that still frightened me.
I began a spiritual discipline. I asked myself to imagine how children might look to God—luminous bundles of grace with their mortal lives waiting to happen, free as yet from world weariness. I took the time to smile at the kids at church and in the neighborhood. And I allowed myself to be more vulnerable to human goodness that was not mediated by high culture or scholarly sophistication. I worked to attend to flowers and clouds and laughing faces. I struggled to spend a little more time outside my head each day. This spiritual practice (and the divine power that motivated it) began, over the course of some months, to shape me.
Then one day in church I found myself cradling a friend’s infant son on my lap as we both half dozed to the rhythms of a slow Sunday School lesson. I was holding him to give my friends a break from the constant effort of early parenthood. This baby boy had big eyes bursting with wonder and thin hair that stretched in every direction. He seemed ready to eat the world in one giant swallow.
I discovered that something had changed in me. It was as if I’d awakened, startled, from a half-remembered dream. I realized in that moment that I had learned to love children. Not just my own children. But the whole motley crowd of weak and insistent babblers. They were my people too.
I’m different these days. I smile at the sight of a baby, which genuinely cheers me. I don’t mind babysitting. I enjoy chatting with small children and even interact occasionally with teenagers. I find that my love for my own children has deepened. And I feel ever more distant from the younger me who wondered whether he was congenitally unable to participate in the lives of others.
The scholar in me notes that there’s nothing authentic about this spiritual discipline and its outcomes. This kindness to children is not a native part of my life or personality. It’s as strange to me as walking on my hands instead of my feet. However genuine it has become, this goodness is something I had to choose despite myself, over my authentic objections. If someone wanted to attach this new trait to nature or nurture, we’d have to bypass more than four decades of my mortal life to imagine some late-onset genetic disorder or some Manchurian Candidate of childhood trauma just waiting for a specific environmental trigger to call it forth. I suppose we could stretch the facts to make that work, but such explanations strain credulity on scientific and religious grounds. I don’t doubt that these recent experiences and the reconfiguration of my soul are mediated in part by biology and history. Of course they are. I’m mortal, after all. I’m just not gullible enough to think that there’s nothing more to it than that. I think this is what the early Christians understood as the new life from above, the changed soul that is in Christ. The Greek term for it, metanoia, is only partly captured by our word “repentance.” This I think is one vista onto losing your life to find it again.
Nor does the modern aesthetic of authenticity shed any special light here. By the lights of authenticity, I’m an aloof intellectual who has little time for others. I’m natively impatient and more than a little blind to what is good and beautiful. This love of the strange simplicity of children feels as familiar as breathing to me now, but it’s not authentic. Not remotely. Instead, it’s the sweet fruit of spiritual practice in an orchard I had to plant and till and sweat over. I’m not dimwitted enough to claim that I am the sole or even primary reason this tree has grown and borne fruit. But I know that this specific fruit in this specific life required that I choose to deviate from the authentic life I received from nature, nurture, and history.
I know that I come across as sentimental now. I’ve become a subject better fit for Hallmark cards than the strenuous realities of our cutthroat economic systems. I still feel the occasional pang of self-consciousness when I realize how soft-hearted I’ve become. Sometimes I miss the strength I perceived in protective indifference. Then I realize that aloof skepticism for all those years stole from me the holy proximity of other people. I know how little the youthful me would admire this turn into weakness. But this new world is where divine love has drawn me, and in this vulnerability stands the possibility of a life beyond my former authenticity.
And thank God for this surprising grace, this yearning to see in love, and the influence of these young people. Suffer the children, indeed.
Lead image: Shutterstock
Though raised as a Latter-day Saint in Utah, Samuel M. Brown was an atheist from an early age and proud of it. Yet, by his own account, God became an undeniable presence in his life. Now a faithful Latter-day Saint, this practicing research physician narrates some of the waypoints on his journey into believing and belonging. Some are dramatic—his wife's cancer diagnosis or working in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic—while many are simple yet profound: being mistaken for a homeless person while a student at Harvard, growing to like little children and opera, and learning to bake cookies for others. With gentle, self-critical humor and a generous regard for those who have accompanied him on his way, Brown's book is an offer to walk with you a while on your own journey of faith. Available now at Deseret Book stores and at DeseretBook.com.